Noragami (Season 1, Season 2, + 3 OVAs)

Good

Noragami is an odd show that’s hard to classify because it tries to do many different things.  The best way to describe it is something of a “get to know the gods” show with bits of action, comedy, and character drama.  Overall fun to watch, this anime shines, albeit unevenly.  Certain themes are really quite strong, but easily get lost in the frivolity.  Noragami leaves the impression that it was fun, but prevented itself from being truly great.

Purpose: Weak.

While this anime does shine in certain things it does, it lacks a uniform strength.  Let’s start by looking at what it tries to be – an anime with some action, character drama, world-specific drama, comedy, and a teensy bit of romance, wrapped up in a folklore-based setting.  Watching through both seasons, it becomes clear that the anime struggled to find a unique voice, running through various kinds of genres before settling on one.  Make no mistake, there are some really strong themes here, it’s just that the anime focused on the weaker ones, when it kept its focus at all.  In particular, the anime kept trying to stay in the action genre, but without the necessary building blocks.  The world wasn’t really ever set up to be the kind of world that supported regular blade-clashing and ability-slinging.  Rather, it was set up as a world of complex interactions and relationships between different actors.  Without the proper setting in place, of course the action will be somewhat bland.  What’s worse, by trying to force the action into the wrong world, it ended up draining from the highlights of the anime – the character drama and the treatment of the Japanese gods.

The character drama is the real star here, although it wasn’t uniform.  You can count exactly 3 really strong character moments, fairly evenly spaced throughout.  Actually, they’re so memorable, you can classify them as unique character arcs – the Yukine arc, the Bishamonten arc, and the Ebisu arc.  It’s important to think about it in this way, because it highlights 3 strong, sharp peaks in the anime with the rest being valleys that bridge them.

Now, I wasn’t going to be quite as hard on the anime’s failings here, except for the fact that I saw the OVAs.  In the three OVAs, they showed what the anime could have been and, perhaps, should, have been to bridge the gap between character dramas.  In the OVAs, they mix up the comedy to do a couple things.  First, they use it to strengthen the oddities and quirks present in the many gods, making them seem apart from “mere” humans.  Second, they use the comedy to reinforce the relationships between Yato and crew and solidify the idea that he doesn’t deserve the people around him, but done in a charming sort of way.  The combination of the two ends up adding to the world and developing characters at the same time, the polar opposite of what happened in the series proper.

Characters: Decent.  

Overall, the characters are pretty plain and shallow, yet endearing.  There are even some really excellent character moments.  However, being endearing and having some good moments does not a character rating make.  This is another example of how the anime shows that it has the potential for greatness without actually making it happen.  One of the problems here is something we see much more commonly in weaker shows.   The characters are established to an everyday “baseline” where you get occasional peaks in some sort of character development or progress, followed by a reversion back to the baseline.  Essentially, they’re the same as they were before.  The one exception in the main cast is Yukine, who does have some solid development, which, unfortunately, ends up highlighting the static nature of everyone else.

For an anime that ends up being about a tangled web of relationships, they don’t focus on those relationships much.  Rather, you get little bits and hints of things that are really quite intriguing, especially how the gods relate to each other.  Again, it’s the OVAs that actually go into those areas and flesh them out.  It brings out the relationships into sharp contrast, which also highlights the subtleties of the characters.  For example, extremely true to his character, you have Yato doing something to Bishamon that’s clearly intended to be (and was) highly offensive, yet utterly innocent.  You have wild, crazy, and silly things that are purely relational in nature, yet confined to the world of the gods, apart from humans.  Interestingly, those relationships were the anime’s unique voice, it’s just that they didn’t give it the proper attention.

World: Very Good.

The world is hard to rate here because its strength varies depending on what’s going on.  As it supports the character relationships, it’s Excellent.  However, as it supports the action, it’s Not Very Good.  Since Noragami ends up being more towards the relationships, it keeps it at Very Good.  

So what about the world doesn’t support the action?  Action anime have specific sets of rules that govern the action.  Sure, you may have magic or some guy that hits people with swords, but they establish limitations pretty quickly.  There are a limited set of things that characters can do, and other things they can’t.  In Noragami, since the subject matter is the gods, they were either unwilling or unable to put meaningful limitations on the characters.  For example, why in the world does the named god of war have any such trouble with a nameless god?  The result is limitations of convenience that pop up without warning to bring a spike in the dramatic tension.  Of course, those limitations are forgotten once it loses its place as a dramatic crutch.  Without the proper guideposts, the world ends up being rather formless, shaped into whatever it needs to be at the moment instead of having its own life.

So why does the world support the relationships?  The same things that were negatives above are positives here.  These guys are gods.  They don’t have to play by normal rules and do so in their own unique ways.  There’s never the sense that they can’t do things, only that they don’t want to.  This sets broad ranges of play for characters to react off of each other – almost like a large sandbox-type setting.  You have a broad set of characters based in folklore and mythology, brought to life,as it were, in silly and crazy ways.

PlotDecent.

Without a third season, the anime’s plot has a very unfinished feel, just like the first season did, standing alone (as I watched it when it first came out).  That said, the plot comes in two flavors.  The character flavor essentially selected one character do go in depth, with some solid steps and overall trajectory.  The second flavor, everything else, was, well, whatever.  Things just sort of happened without any real buildup or logical flow.  The action plots were the worst in this regard, falling back on writer’s convenience time and time again.  As an aside, the comedy “plots” were fairly solidly self-contained and had a good internal structure.

StorytellingVery Good.  

The storytelling is all about those great moments.  Aside from the three really powerful character moments, they had some really great stuff.  The standout would be the development of the Nora.  They did a spectacular job of making them have a very dirty or repulsive feel, without making the characters themselves repulsive in a visual or traditional sense.  Rather, it was the atmosphere they created involving these characters, which relied on other character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the Nora.  Again, we have a highlight of subtlety, delicacy, and attention to detail that the anime shows it was capable of.

One final note here, the comedy ends up being extremely strong in the OVAs.

Pace:  Good.

The material was presented with a solid enough way that the anime was never really boring.  You had the three main peaks with relatively slow buildups to get there, but other than that, nothing else to remark upon.

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Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (Series)

Excellent

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works is a strong character drama with lots of really good action components.  In broad terms, this anime essentially a remake of the 2005 Fate/Stay Night series.  However that’s not quite correct, since the Fate/ series is based off a visual novel (a kind of choose your own adventure style computer game.)  Unlimited Blade works is a different “route” from the 2005 Fate/Stay Night – a different path the story takes, depending on player choices.  All in all, this is likely to be a really good anime for both new fans and veterans alike.  That said, the whole series is probably best watched in release order
2005 Fate/Stay night -> Fate/Zero -> Unlimited Blade Works.  This particular watch order recommendation is supported by the order the original game was supposed to be played.  The first scenario, titled “Fate,” (covered by the 2005 series) had to be completed before you unlocked the Unlimited Blade Works route.  Fate/Zero is necessary in between the two because it contextualizes what happened in “Fate” and sets you up to get the most out of Unlimited Blade Works.

Purpose: Excellent.  Overall, the anime is an interesting character drama about confronting one’s ideals and idealism in the face of reality.  If that sounds too high-brow, don’t worry.  It’s presented in a fairly accessible way, with attention paid to how the issue is presented.  All in all, this is an anime that is quite talkative, with lots and lots of dialogue to read (or hear if you’re a dub fan.)  However, since they paid such great attention to the details, the talking is never really dull.   The talkiness is refined so that it’s generally character personalities bouncing off each other in an extremely witty and occasionally sarcastic exchange of words.  Of course, Unlimited Blade Works is not all philosophical – there are a great many stellar action sequences to punctuate what’s going on.

Characters: Very Good.  The characters were generally strong, with the focus mostly on the three main characters.  That said, the anime does a solid job of making most of the characters involved with the story distinctive and interesting.  More impressive, perhaps, is that the distinctive ways the characters act, react, and interact with the world are all logically consistent with their personalities.  On that theme, the series did an excellent job of rotating in and out different kinds of villain, taking the time and care to develop them and even humanize them.  Even the ultimate villain’s actions and reasoning end up being more interestingly twisted than purely malevolent.

One thing to note – since Unlimited Blade Works relies so much on things that happened before, as a standalone, the characters aren’t quite as strong as if you’re privy to the knowledge obtained by watching the other two series, 2005 Fate/Stay Night and then Fate/Zero.  That ends up adding to the tragedy of several scenes as well as the tragic nature of the idealism at issue.  That’s why I recommend release watch order.

World: Excellent.  For people newer to the Fate/ series world, there’s quite a bit to take in – heroes and magic and general goings-on.  The Fate/ world is extremely large with different players and forces all acting on the story. However, even though very odd and magical things happen, it’s done with a high degree of order – there’s a definite set of rules that govern what’s happening.  Certainly, the viewer isn’t privy to everything, but the world has a sense of realism – that one could understand all of why things are happening.  That aside, the world itself sets up a really interesting stage for things to happen.   More importantly, all of the characters are affected by this world, both in the overall happenings and the impact it has on their personalities – characters are all affected by the “world” they were summoned from, impacting their choices in the story.

Plot: Very Good.  Overall, the plot is pretty straightforward.  Part of its simplicity comes from its focus on the main three characters.  However, this is an example of side-plots and subplots that end up adding a good deal of complexity to what’s going on.  There are several different plotlines that involve different characters, their motives, and their actions.  However, each of them are, themselves, plot points that help shape the trajectory of our main characters’ story and propel them forward.  Basically, they refine our main characters and their choices.

Storytelling: Masterpiece.  There’s two main components to this – the character storytelling and the action storytelling.   Starting with the character storytelling, they made a really good decision on ordering the presentation of information, especially by having Episode 0.  While some of the information is review for veterans of the series, there’s enough for newer fans to get the general context.  That’s the really interesting thing about Unlimited Blade Works – its story appears to be designed as a middle ground.  It can be really good without the context, but much better if you have it.  The additional context really sharpens the tragedy of the ideal being presented as well as some of the events involving other characters.

Of course, an essential part of an action anime’s storytelling is the action.  Unlimited Blade Works does not disappoint.  The action has a really solid pace and is strong, but not exactly flashy.  It’s long enough to make it satisfying to watch, but ending quickly enough that it doesn’t grow tiresome.  Furthermore, the action is furious and frenetic without being gritty or over-the-top.  The result is that it emphasizes the heroic nature of these characters – that we are watching some really legendary people clash with each other.  Interestingly, you can see both the skill and the personality of the combatants come out when they clash blades.

On final thing to note – on a purely structural level, the use of color and contrast was absolutely stellar.  The differences in color and hue strongly emphasized the feel of a great many settings.  For example, they used warmer colors to convey safety and familiarity and colder colors to emphasize the unknown and threatening nature of what’s going on.  Contrast as well was employed in a really powerful way to draw attention and focus.  In particular, color change really impacted the sense of a violation when a character was attacked in a place of safety.

Pace: Excellent. There’s not too much to say other than the pace from episode 1 starts out a little slow, but it’s essential.  The pace itself starts getting faster and faster, emphasizing the desperate nature of the events.  One little oddity comes roughly around the 3/4 mark.  The pace slows considerably while our main character faces a large obstacle.  This is done to drive the point home so while it feels a little like it drags on, there really is a lot of new information being presented and action happening at the same time.

Wagnaria!!3 (Season 3)

Excellent

This is the third and final installment of slice of work-life series, Wagnaria.  Wagnaria is one of those shows that got stronger as it went, both in the underlying material and in the anime’s treatment of the story.  This season brings a conclusion to all the swirling drama that was built in the previous two seasons.  They created an ending that was satisfying, funny, sweet, surprisingly genuine, and, in true Wagnaria style, over the top.

Purpose: Excellent.  In essence, the purpose was to wrap everything up, which they did in a suitably spectacular fashion.  What makes this series notable is how much it differs from the genre standard.  Normally, series of this type take a “two-steps backward” approach to maintain drama throughout the final season.  It ends up re-hashing much of what came before.  What Wagnaria did was evenly space out the payoffs to always keep their characters moving forward, more of a staggered approach.  This approach ended up giving equal weight to each of the characters and their individual circumstances.  Another notable thing about his particular anime is that they really do tie up all the loose ends.  That said, it wasn’t wrapped up so tightly that it ever feels like that’s the end of the interesting characters or goings-on.

Characters: Excellent.  The way the characters were presented, it’s clear that they were very aware and very careful of how and when they added new characters to the story.  What’s surprising is how tightly they fit into the story by filling more than one role.  Basically, the new characters aren’t superfluous.  Interestingly, the new characters round out the story instead of diluting or detracting from what’s going on.

While adding and developing new characters, they still managed to round out the existing cast and provide for solid character growth.  More background characters end up taking surprising spotlights and taking on a different flavor from what you’d normally expect.  It’s the character growth in spite of all the goings-on that solidifies this particular element as Excellent.

World: Excellent.  Why is the world Excellent when the setting is basically the restaurant?  It’s precisely because of how impactful the restaurant is on everyone’s lives.  The restaurant is what brings them together, but also is the glue that extends beyond.  In fact, much of this season is about expanding the world – breaking out of the setting and seeing how these relationships exist, even outside of the restaurant.  This is a perfect example of an extremely subtle anime world that is nonetheless very powerful.  Though the background doesn’t really change, it’s about the atmosphere that’s created.

Plot: Excellent.  Since this season was a wrap-up, the plot didn’t have too far to go.  However, what was really exceptional about the plot was how it maneuvered the setup of the individual points to solidly lead into the ultimate conclusions.  Once you look at the bigger picture, you realize that there were a great deal of intertwining plot points, often affecting several characters at once.  What’s quite impressive is that, in spite of its complexity, it ended up looking both smooth and simple.

One final note on the plot – even events that happen as a surprise have a solid, if hidden, buildup.

Storytelling: Masterpiece.  There are some really exceptional moments, coming with quite powerful buildups.  In fact, this season in particular has many extremely memorable moments.  This was accomplished through smooth transitions between serious and silly, making the two complement each other quite well.  They focused their energies on the presentation of the payoff moments, making them particularly special.  This made it so that the moment wasn’t only what was happening, but how things were happening.  Part of this was that they managed both the characters and the moments so well, keeping them true to what they had developed.  In other words, it you wouldn’t see a generic “sweet moment,” but a sweet moment that was the culmination of all that the characters had become.  These moments relied on the proper development and growth of the characters as well as the timing of the situations to create a powerful genuineness.

Pace: Very Good. The biggest problem was an odd pacing hiccup in the beginning.  Weirdly, they made a standing start, re-building momentum.  Both animation-wise, comedy timing-wise, and character-wise.  Fortunately, this ends up being worked out after about episode 3.  Once they pick up speed again, it keeps it powerful momentum throughout.